Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Difficult 2015—Reissues and Archival Releases

2015 was such a lousy year for music that I found most of my fun in the reissues pile. Each one of these was an exciting discovery.

Alice Coltrane—Universal Consciousness (Superior Viaduct)
This is a fantastic reissue of Coltrane’s 1971 album for Impulse!—one which Fact magazine declared the third best album of the 1970s. The music shimmers and prickles you, surging in ways that I can’t comprehend—how do you play like that? The spiritual journey that Coltrane describes in the liner notes isn’t something I can understand either, but I’m certainly glad it sparked the creation of this music.

Six Organs of Admittance—Dust and Chimes (Holy Mountain)
Ben Chasny is in full folk/psych acoustic splatter mode on this set originally released in 2000. A little frantic and spindly to really mellow you out, it’s mind-expanding stuff nevertheless.

Besombes/Rizet—Pôle (Gonzaï Records)
This French duo operated in the same synth/freakout realms as Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream and especially Heldon. It doesn`t sound like they had the latest gear (in an era when being two or three years behind could mean a lot), but they made the most of it. The original 1975 LP was a double. This reissue is a single disc, but you get the whole set of tracks with the download card.

 Soft Machine—Switzerland 1974 (Cuneiform)
Allan Holdsworth joining Soft Machine made for a heavy, volatile mix. Ace Soft Machine archivists Cuneiform Records have outdone themselves with this CD/DVD combo.

Sensations Fix—Music is Painting in the Air (1974-1977) (RVNG)
Italo/American outfit Sensations Fix were led by Franco Falsini, who returns to his cache of tapes recorded in the mid-seventies for this collection of lost tracks and remixes. The songs are driven by Falsini’s cosmic guitar playing and plentiful Minimoog. It’s whacked-out and hapless enough to have considerable obscurist allure.

Friday, April 08, 2016

2112: Side Two

There’s a scene in Freaks and Geeks where the geeks argue about the perfect movie. Sam says it’s The Jerk. Neil claims that it’s Caddyshack. No way, Sam scoffs. Caddyshack is totally inconsistent. It’s just like Stripes: “You cannot tell me what happened in the second half of that movie.”

2112 is the Stripes of classic rock albums. To say it’s front-loaded is an understatement. The first side so obsesses people that they forget that side two even exists. The 20 minute suite of songs that make up “2112” is the entire album to some fans. I’ve even seen the claim that 2112 is a concept album.

2112 is not a concept album. Side two has nothing to do with the side preceding it, unless I’m missing something. Maybe after the elder race assumes control of the solar federation, everyone celebrates by getting really high, as told in “A Passage to Bangkok.” This extension of the "2112" storyline hasn’t been widely accepted yet, so let’s go with the idea that 2112 consists of the title piece and unrelated songs on side two.

The songs in question aren’t the strongest stretch of material in the Rush catalogue either. Fly By Night might even have better short songs if you consider the kick-ass quotient of “Anthem,” “Best I Can,” “Beneath Between & Behind” and “Fly by Night.” Side two of 2112 is a mixed bag indeed. It starts and ends strongly with “A Passage to Bangkok” and “Something for Nothing.” Both were in the live set for years. “Passage…” is loveably dumb, seemingly written to get the Woodersons in their audience on board. I remember reading the lyrics for the first time and dealing with the realization that my heroes were stoners. As Morrissey once whined, I swear I never even knew what drugs were at that age.

This leaves a three-song ditch in the middle. Caress of Steel was dedicated to Rod Serling, and now “The Twilight Zone” continues the tribute. Unfortunately it’s a stitched-together and forgettable ditty. Also unfortunate is that it was the single off the album—not likely to send the roller rink into a frenzy on a hot seventies night. Frampton and Styx had nothing to worry about.

“Lessons” is a solid Fly by Night by way of “Ramble On” number elevated by Alex Lifeson’s acoustic rhythm guitar track. Peart, faced with laying down something basic in 4/4, sprinkles in a bunch of fancy fills to keep himself interested.

“Tears” is the sort of ballad they felt obliged to include for a while—think “Rivendell,” “Panacea,” and “Madrigal.” Best of the lot was “Different Strings” from Permanent Waves. For Moving Pictures and subsequent albums, the real ballady ballads were dropped.

After “Tears,” “Something for Nothing” swoops in to save the day, taking the album out on a triumphant, defiant note. Geddy howls like his throat’s about to give out, Peart throws in an 84-bar tom roll, and it’s hell yeah! Finally time to flip the album over and play side one again.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Uli Jon Roth’s Ultimate Guitar Experience, March 19 at the Venue

Any show at the Venue is a tradeoff. It’s a useful space with decent sound. I like that they do early shows. I’m totally okay with clearing out at 10:30 to make way for the clubgoers. That’s great. The down side is being merely tolerated by the club staff, who on this night left me feeling like a degenerate for daring to breathe the same air as them.

Andy Timmons started the show with a rock/fusion/Americana blend that reminded me of Morse and the Dixie Dregs at time. He played with a rhythm section who also did duties for Uli’s set. There was a tastefully arranged Beatles medley in tribute to George Martin. He talked affably to the crowd between songs and went up in my estimation by not walking off the stage when some asshat yelled for “Freebird.”

Jennifer Batten played solo, accompanied by backing tracks on a laptop and a screen that showed old film clips and animation. Her set emphasized fun rather than raw chops. For example, she mashed up Weather Report’s “Teen Town” with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and ended her set with a medley of 50 years worth of guitar riffs, from the Ventures to Van Halen. Quite a party piece.

Uli Jon Roth left no doubt who the night’s real guitar hero was. His set was like Christmas, New Year’s Eve and my birthday all in one. He wasted no time delivering the heavy hitters—“The Sails of Charon” was the second song, followed by “We’ll Burn the Sky”, “Sun in My Hand” and “In Trance.” The band numbered seven people at times, with the singer (a huge Native American fellow who utterly ruled!) coming and going depending on the song. I can’t say Uli's Sky guitar, with its dog-whistle tones high up on the neck, is my favourite instrument, but it’s part of Uli’s whole deal, and he’s undeniably a wizard on the thing. It was a thrill to watch him work. To end the night, Timmons came out again for an all-Hendrix encore of “All Along the Watchtower” and “Little Wing.” When the set ended, having gone 15 minutes over curfew, the Venue started blasting the shittiest club music imaginable to hurry all us gross old people out the doors.
(Photo by Bob Logan)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Bitches Brew by George Grella Jr. (33 1/3, Bloomsbury)

Talk about a daunting project! First, there's the album itself, and its dense, arcane contents. How do you even write about that music? Second, many brave people have written about that music. The corpus of Miles Davis literature is not small. There's gonna be a movie too.  Is there anything new to say about Bitches Brew?

To his credit, Grella does an excellent job within the 33 1/3 format. It does what I want every book in the series to do: hit me with a barrage of heady ideas while wedging in some worthy musical analysis.

He discusses Miles Davis's place in jazz musically and critically (he gets some good jabs in at Stanley Crouch) and within the broader popular culture. The book traces Davis's journey from Birth of the Cool into the electric era. Remarkably, Grella is able to cover all this territory without being rushed or perfunctory. When we reach In a Silent Way, Grella pauses to examine its creation, noting that it's the point where the music enters "a new and previously unimagined dimension," with Teo Macero's razor blade restructuring of open-ended source material. The music became radical, and the studio became an instrument, just as it had for most of the experimental music and cutting-edge pop of the day. Grella funnels these topics towards the book's final third, which is a dissection of Bitches Brew's two LPs and the impact the music had in the years after its release.

He even wedges in just the right amount of personal narrative. I especially liked the book's opening, which describes the author's efforts to understand the music as a teenager: "…we listened, because the dark beauty of the music and the unlimited possibilities it promised were irresistible."

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Keith Emerson (1944–2016)

I listened to ELP's debut album the weekend before Keith Emerson passed away. It crackles with energy while still being suitably indulgent and show-offy. The schmaltz factor is minimal, all in all. I think it's their best LP. It'd been years since I put it on and damn it if I didn't know that music down to the last paradiddle.

I'm sure "Lucky Man" was the first ELP song I heard on the radio. It's a simple folk song—legend has it that it was the first song Greg Lake ever wrote—crowned (or marred, if you've an affinity for the Rolling Stone Record Guide) by Emerson's Moog solo exploding out of nowhere. A humble tune is suddenly fired into an unearthly realm. That's how the album ends. Zoom, whoosh! What a sound!

My Dave Smith Instruments Mopho comes with a preset called "Fortunate Guy" that replicates that square wave magic. Let's hear a sample:

You don't need a spare room and 50 grand to make that sound, but back then you did. A lot of people were offended by that. The same people were also offended by Emerson's rocking the classics, which started when he was with The Nice. Bernstein, Copeland, Mussorgsky, Holst, and Ginistera all got the Emerson treatment. I'd like to think that he performed that music not because he intended to improve or update it, but because it rocked, plain and simple. Pictures at an Exhibition is at least as doom-laden as any Sabbath album. Why not try it with a rock band?

Everything—the instruments, the technology, the notion of "art rock"—was new when ELP were coming up; it was all a big experiment. Amazingly, stadiums full of people were feeling rather experimental too. Hammonds were stabbed, pianos flew, tympani and gongs were bashed, fancy carpets got rolled out. Critics yawned… I'm not going to argue that all of it was in good taste, but the thing about good taste is, it stops you from enjoying a lot of excellent things. Thanks for taking the music where you did, Keith.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Magma—Üdü Wüdü (RCA France, 1976)

I'm no Magma expert, but do know that I love their whole deal. I'm still smiling from the show they put on at the Venue last year. What the what was that? All I know is we should do that again sometime soon.

You don't often see their albums out in the wild, so I happily forked out for this copy that turned up in the new arrivals bin at Dandelion Records.

Üdü Wüdü is their sixth studio album; a return to the studio after the release of Live/Hhaï. Side one features short pieces ranging from weird sort of samba music to weird martial songs, all accompanied by Magma's characteristic Kobaïan chanting. Side two is devoted to "De Futura," an impressive epic that actually rocks, powered by composer Janick Top's frenzied, fuzzified bass playing. Though it doesn't appear to be the most well-regarded Magma LP, it's fantastic stuff, and more approachable than Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh (the only other Magma studio LP I own).

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Low by Hugo Wilcken (33 1/3, continuum)

After the shock of his death subsided, Low was the only Bowie album I listened to. It felt like a good place to go—a mysterious, elusive album with no big hits on it. I didn't feel nostalgic about it. Emotional resonance was minimal. The whole album slips past you, surreal, the production and atmosphere taking you out of place and time. It's clearly brilliant, and invites repeat listens while still keeping you at a cool distance. It was recorded in France and Germany in 1976, but Bowie, still shaking off his role in The Man Who Fell to Earth, may as well have beamed it from a planet light years away.

This book does a good job getting into Bowie's headspace at the time, drawing from secondary sources to trace his post-Station to Station career in tandem with the origin and development of the music that became Low. It was indeed a low time for Bowie—addled by cocaine psychosis and occult obsessed, his marriage was dissolving and his ability to trust even his closest collaborators often faltered. Yet the work never stopped. With the help of Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, and keeping vampiric hours, he channelled bursts of inspiration to form Low's split personality—the alien pop songs on side one and the nearly all instrumental side two.

As Eno puts it: "He was pretty much living at the edge of his nervous system, very tense. But as often happens, that translated into a sense of complete abandon in the work. One of the things that happens when you're going through traumatic life situations is your work becomes one of the only places where you can escape and take control. I think it's in that sense that 'tortured' souls sometimes produce great work."